"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 23 February 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
French Tickler


[more po
ems by dogs; 'loaf'-
silent dog, lie by the desk ]

It's about balance - France

knows this better than anyone.

Dualistic principles of balance

defined French history and

character long before Descartes

thought he existed. Balance

artery-clogging butterfat in

sauces with moderate consumption

of red wine at meals. Balance

absolute monarchy with a

guillotine. Balance a gift for

creative slang with a panel of

lunatics bent on jailing people

for misusing words. Balance

Serge Gainsbourg with Jordi,

Claude Debussy with Jacques

Brel, a winning soccer team with

a losing army. To the extent

that Inspector Clouseau (a

parody of the French from the

land of their mortal enemies)

was funny, it was because this

bumbling, sweating loser was

French - they aren't supposed to

be so uncool or fall down so

much. To be French is to be

balanced; that's why

centuries-old nut jobs like Joan

of Arc still stand out as

national pariahs.


So it was in character that

socialist Prime Minister Lionel

Jospin announced last month, "We

want modernity, but we want to

keep it under control. While our

country embarks on this current

of modernity, we know that we

must preserve France's

personality." The French are

finally ready to take on this

wacky new modernity thing - air

travel, internal combustion

engines, showering more than

once a week - but in their own,

balanced way. French academics -

who American hoaxster Alan

Sokal noted, enjoy "throwing

around scientific jargon in

front of their nonscientist

readers without any regard for

its relevance or even its

meaning" - are proudly

postmodern. But the country that

banned printed calicos in 1686

still tries to be a little

behind the times. When Jospin

concluded, "France must work to

preserve its national identity

in the modern world, without

being arrogant or

old-fashioned," it's as clear as

the nose on Asterix's face:

Being arrogant and old-fashioned

is France's national identity.


[one won
ders how you can get so much rest]

American attitudes toward French

snootiness are as balanced as a

Croissan'wich breakfast. On one

hand, old-fashioned hiya-bub

Americanism has always seemed oafish

beside the posture of cool

reserve French kids learn in

their sadistic, spirit-murdering

schools. The Marquis de

Lafayette, whose only real

accomplishment was coming from a

good family, still gets his

pasty ass kissed for helping

beat the British during our

revolution - a small favor,

given that the French live to

humiliate and defeat the

British. To this day, whenever

some neoconservative Washington

foundation bore wants to show

keen insight into the American

character, he inevitably quotes

not any actual American but

Alexis de Tocqueville, a

Frenchman 150 years dead who

took a long vacation here once

and seemingly learned as much

about the American character as

Blair Warner learned of the

French when she shopped Paris

and smooched some French

smoothie at the Eiffel Tower in

a two-part Facts of Life. We

even name significant and

beloved cultural totems - French

toast (originally "German

toast"), French kisses, French

ticklers - after them. Polls

show that as many Americans know

French waiters are rude as know

what century the Civil War

happened in. This inferiority

complex - though in decline

during the past 50 years - has

always been topsy-turvy. It's as

if Colonel Hogan had passed the

mantle of command to LeBeau.


At the same time, we show the

French considerable contempt,

blaming them for a host of ills

that may or may not be their

fault. Our mockery of what we

believe is a Parisian fixation

on Jerry Lewis is unsupported by

evidence; and anyway, making a

god of Jerry Lewis should be

considered a national virtue.

More broadly, historians, always

in a hurry to let Germans off

the hook, blame Hitler's rise on

"unfair" reparations France

demanded after World War I. (In

fact, they didn't punish the

Germans enough.) It's unclear

which annoys us more: that the

French managed to lose World War

II with blitzkrieg swiftness or

that they managed to sit out the

war with remarkably little loss

of prestige, thanks to de

Gaulle's mordant Louis XIV

impersonations. "I, I was

France, the state, the

government. I, I spoke in the

name of France. I, I was the

independence and sovereignty of

France," de Gaulle stuttered

after the war, thus establishing

the pretense that all those

boulevardiers who sipped strong

coffee in sidewalk cafes while

Nazis goose-stepped down the

Champs-Elysées weren't

really French at all, just some

cheesy, Cirque du Soleil-style

knockoffs. And while the British

are responsible for the bulk of

worldwide post-colonial misery,

the French - whose former

colonies and protectorates tend to

explode more spectacularly - get

the blame. Americans still

suspect Vietnam was a French

plot to embarrass us, even

though, compared to the French

experience, our war in Indochina

looks like a stunning victory.


[i often
 wish that you could talk ]

To be fair, nobody looks to

France for martial prowess. It's

in its role as cultural

arbiter that France has

really fallen down. The home of

Flaubert, Celine, and

Toulouse-Lautrec has devolved

into an empire of critics,

waging cranky debates over

whether un burger is proper

usage or if EuroDisney has the

right to outlaw facial hair.

They accuse Hollywood of

swamping their film industry,

while trying to convince our art

house chumps that Tatie

Danielle is a really good movie

(we've taken revenge by sending

over popinjays like Adam Gopnik

to act as poseur Francophiles).

At this point, nobody doubts

that France's most significant

cultural contribution to the

postwar scene was Napoleon

XIV's "They're Coming to Take Me



The French are now bringing

balance to what they call the

Economic Horror, approaching

prosperity like a finite,

Perrier-precious property that

must be carefully managed. In

the days of Henry IV, crazed

mercantilists decided to make

France self-sufficient in silk

by forcing everyone to grow

mulberry trees for silkworms to

nest in. Ever since, the French

have loved crackpot economic

theories that miss the point of

economizing - getting something

for less effort. It's cheaper to

buy silk than to force the whole

country to grow it, just as it's

easier to spur economic growth

by letting people work harder

than by prosecuting executives

whose senior staff work overtime

(as France is now doing). The

nation is now gliding on a path

to a legally enforced, 35-hour

work week by 2000. And "creating

jobs" by forcing some not to

work and then paying subsidies

for new hires will increase the

tax burden that keeps France's

unemployment so high to begin

with. An advisor to the Jospin

administration admitted, "It

makes more sense politically

than economically." But it sure

balances: Instead of having some

employed and some unemployed,

everybody is partially employed.


[and tell me if you want to go on a walk]

Meanwhile their economy is

sinking deeper into the

toilette, and the nation's

balance is so off that we're

wondering when the pendule will

swing back. It's not so much our

concern for the euro's integrity

or fondness for brioche as it is our

interest in being able to tell

one European country from

another. Because if the French

fall any lower, they might as

well become Belgians.

courtesy of Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk


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